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Thread: Improvising: A Case Study

  1. #1
    Join Date
    May 2012
    Mililani, HI

    Default Improvising: A Case Study

    Hi everyone! I’ve been improvising for a couple years now and I want to share some trends I’ve noticed along the way. To illustrate three of these trends, I’ll reference this video of Kris Fuchigami and Kalei Gamiao improvising in a uke store in the key of C major.

    First off, my take on improvising on the uke is that for every key, there are two “shapes” where all the “good-sounding” notes seem to fit. These shapes are relatively distant from each other, meaning that there’s always a “low region” on the uke with juicy notes to play and a “high region” with juicy notes. Explaining these shapes goes beyond the scope of this post, but here’s a guide I made earlier if you want to understand it a bit more.

    Now I thought about how to best organize these trends so they can be understood and applied in any key, and unfortunately that means introducing some music theory jargon. The numbers I use for each trend refer to intervals in the major scale. Simply put, “1” is “do,” “2” is “re,” “3” is “mi,” etc. This is just for generalizing purposes, though. The important thing is to remember is where your fingers go in relation to one of the two chord shapes mentioned above. So don’t think like, “Okay they’re playing in the key of D major so instead of sliding from G to A I need to slide from A to B.” Instead, think, “Okay the song’s in D so I’m playing 5s7 instead of 3s5 on the E string.”

    Let’s get started!

    Sliding From 5 To 6, Then Picking 1
       Low        High
    A|-----5-| A|-------|
    e|-3s5---| e|-----8-|
    c|-------| c|-7s9---|
    g|-------| g|-------|
    Kris plays the low variation at 0:42, 1:32, and 2:32, while Kalei kinda plays it at 1:15 (he mini-shreds and picks 3, 4, and 5 on the E string).

    This is by far the most popular trend. These runs are super safe to play, since they end on the same note as the key of the song. You can let the last note ring out and stay on it for a while (kinda like at 0:42 and 1:32), or you can transition to something else (like a slide to the G shape at 1:15 and 2:32). I’m surprised neither Kris nor Kalei played the high variation, but I promise you it’s just as popular. Here’s a video of Aldrine Guerrero doing it for ten seconds straight (starts at 1:19).

    Bending 2
       Low        High
    A|-5b6b5-| A|----------|
    e|-------| e|-10b11b10-|
    c|-------| c|----------|
    g|-------| g|----------|
    Kris plays the low variation at 0:44, 1:33, and 1:40 and the high variation at 1:42 and 2:37. Kalei plays the low variation at 1:12 and the high variation at 2:06 and 3:08.

    Like the above trend, this is also really easy to apply. Unlike the above trend, the sound it makes elicits tension (not resolution). Most of the time, you’ll play the 1st interval right after to resolve the tension (in this case it’s either the A string 3rd fret or the E string 8th fret).

    This trend is the most versatile of the five listed here. You can emphasize the bend up (like Kris at 1:33 and 1:40) and/or emphasize the bend down (like Kalei at 1:12 and 2:06). You can hold the bend to create more tension or to take a “mini-break” while improvising. For the high variation, you can play a double-stop (picking two notes simultaneously) below like Kris does at 1:42 and 2:37.
    Sliding From 2 To 3, Then Picking 5
       Low        High
    A|-------| A|-------10---|
    e|-----3-| e|-10s12------|
    c|-2s4---| c|------------|
    g|-------| g|------------|
    Kris plays the low variation at 0:49, 1:31, and 2:30, while Kalei plays the high variation at 2:03.

    This also creates tension, though not as much as bending the 2nd interval. Kris resolves this tension by playing the 6th interval (E string, 5th fret), while Kalei resolves this by sliding back from the 3rd interval to the 2nd (12s10), then picking the 1st interval (E string, 8th fret). Notice that these ideas to resolve the tension can easily be interchanged, meaning you can play things like these:
    A|-------------| A|-------10-12-|
    e|-----3-------| e|-10s12-------|
    c|-2s4---4s2-0-| c|-------------|
    g|-------------| g|-------------|
    While this trend isn’t as popular as the other two, it’s a great way to get the C string involved in your improvising.

    Kris and Kalei do other stuff like octaves (1:20), playing kinda similar chords (1:56), and arpeggiating chords (3:36), but that comes with experience more than anything.

    And that’s it! Of course, there's a ton more improvising ideas that I haven't mentioned, but here are some of the most popular ones. I'm personally a huge fan of double-stops like this:
    Thanks for reading my post, and feel free to post any questions, comments, concerns, and any improvising tricks that come up. I’m always down to improve and learn new stuff
    I play fingerstyle (っ✿◕‿◕)っ♪♬
    Mililani, HI // Irvine, CA
    UC Irvine c/o 2018

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Jan 2013
    on a sunny FL beach


    CasanovaGuy, for me, moving to fifths tuning is what opened me up to easy improv. Due to the symmetrical tuning, I can improv in ANY major key, ANY string, ANYWHERE on the fretboard using one pattern

    (R is root note, or “key” of song, put index finger anywhere and count that as “0” fret and use this pattern)

    0 - 2 - 5
    R - 2 - 4
    2 - 4

    90% of the time all your melody will fall on these notes and all are safe notes for improv
    Last edited by bunnyf; 10-24-2020 at 05:56 AM.

  3. #3
    Join Date
    Feb 2017


    Can we please have some conversation of our "planned" improvisation. We all have a plan to appear unplanned. So what's yours? Without giving away too much, my plan is pentatonics and modes. Without warning I would do some improv with those things. With warning I could actually do something coherent. What's your plan?

  4. #4
    Join Date
    Jan 2013
    on a sunny FL beach


    My “plan” for improv on unfamiliar songs is to start with fills using pentatonic or major arpeggios. I use these to find the melody, then continue with a more melody-based improv.

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